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Minerality found on the slopes of the Rhine

The main components of wine are acidity, tannins, alcohol, and fruitiness/sugar. All of these elements are fairly comprehensible. Acidity is the mouthwatering element that decreases as the natural sugar of a grape develops on the vine. Tannins are an astringent compound that comes from the skins, stems, and seeds and from aging wine in new oak barrels. Fruitiness and sugar are one and the same at harvest and become fruit flavors after fermentation. Leftover sugar not converted into alcohol is called residual sugar and can be detected on the tip of the tongue. Most wines are fermented completely dry and have no residual sugar, regardless of their fruity taste. Alcohol should not contribute to the flavor profile, although it can be significant in creating a full bodied sensation. If you can taste the alcohol, the wine is said to be 'hot.'

There is another element that is not a member of the usual list, whose development and presence are not clearly understood. Terroir (tahr-wah) is immeasurable and abstract, yet very recognizable. It is the flavor of stones from the river; the sultry notes of baked earth; it is the flavor of Spring rain; it is the tickle of minerals on your tongue. This concept of terroir has always fascinated me and the presence of minerality earns a wine special stature in my domain.

On a recent afternoon I enjoyed tasting some delightful German wines and talking with the winemaker, August Kesseler. One particular bottle of wine in his portfolio was captivating. It was his August Kesseler 2002 Rheingau Estate Riesling, an inexpensive bottle of wine with a prominent zippy mineral content.

2001 was the best vintage in Germany for over forty years because of warm weather. The 2003 vintage was yet another notable harvest due to warm weather. August explained that 'the 2002 vintage was overlooked because it was between two warm vintages, 2001 and 2003. Because 2002 was a cooler vintage, the wines have a better balance. They have better acidity, fruit flavors, and minerality.' Winemakers usually don't talk about minerality in terms of balance. It has always been the same checklist, fruit flavor balanced against acidity and mature tannins. No one mentions minerality as part of the balancing act, at least not until August came along.

Kesseler's philosophy about winemaking is very meticulous. He reduces his yields to obtain maximum quality. The yields for many of his vineyards are similar to the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy. This may explain why even his everyday offerings are remarkable. His vines grow on steep rocky terraces, overlooking the Rhine River, in the Assmannshausen region of the Rheingau. The challenging terrain and Kesseler's pursuit of excellence require that the grapes be harvested by hand. His staff, whom he refers to as team members, traverse the steep slopes of the vineyards and hoist the grapes by ropes and pullies. Kesseler, a highly acclaimed winemaker, calls himself a winegrower. He is quick to point out that "great wines start in the vineyards; this is why I am a winegrower, not a winemaker."

The Reingau is known for wines with stony minerality. Minerality comes primarily from the soil type, but according to August its flavors can be overwhelmed in extremely ripe years. Another fantastic demonstration of terroir and minerality are Kesseler's two savory Spätburgunders (pinot noir). The August Kesseler Assmannshauser Hollenberg 2002 Spätburgunder comes from the legendary Hollenberg vineyard atop the Rheingau. Very little of this graceful, rose petal-like red is imported into the U.S. His 2002 Cuvée Max is another elegant offering of pinot noir with classic notes of spring rain and raspberries.

You can dabble in Kesseler's 2002 Estate Riesling for its remarkable balance, dryness, and minerality. Enjoy his 'Goldneck' or 'Roseneck' offerings, or his luscious 2003 Spätlese with its flavor of honeysuckle nectar, lime zest, and mango. Kesseler's wines are an insight into the Rheingau terroir from vintage to vintage. Like liquid gemstones, his wines are a true balance of all the flavors Rheingau grapes have to offer. Articles are property of Brenda Francis and are not to be reproduced in any way without written consent from Brenda Francis.